Europe may take WC title but S. Americans have won hearts

By Mark Namanya in Moscow

Time check is 2:50am in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning in Moscow, which is the same as Kampala time.
 We are at Leningradsky Railway Station, preparing to board the 10-hr train to Saint Petersburg for the first semi-final between Belgium and France.
 A good number of the passengers boarding the Fifa train are fans from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.
 To get on the train, you must flash your passport.
 In the queue to carriage 6 where I’m booked, I see passports of the three South American countries belonging to fans who are similarly headed to the first semi-final but aren’t dressed in colours of the Albiceleste, Selecao and La Tricolors.
 On arrival in St Petersburg, you are greeted by a typically expectant World Cup semi-final atmosphere but there is little to show that there is a showdown between France and Belgium in a few hours.
 Four years ago when Brazil played Germany in Belo Horizonte and Argentina locked horns with Netherlands in Sao Paulo, you didn’t have to ask anyone to know that there were two huge sets of fans raring to go against one another.
 On Tuesday, there was nothing of the kind. Sets of French and Belgian fans arrived in batches, but with no show of fervour. Sometimes it looked like a World Cup group match.
 South American countries have been poor at the World Cup on the pitch.
 Off the pitch, they’ve been magnificent. Argentina fans are something else. They love their country and spend huge sums to cheer the Albiceleste. Diego Maradona is not alone. There were 40,000 others.
 Brazil is the same. The Selecao fans believe they have a divine calling to every World Cup. After all they have won it more than any team. And they have qualified for every edition.
 Colombian ticket sales exceeded 65,000. There were also many Peruvians in Russia.
 But European fans have been a disappointment. They have been few. The atmosphere between Belgium and France hardly helped a game that failed to sparkle.
 Blame it on the politics between Russia and the west which turned away some fans. Argentina journalist Javier German explained why fans from his country are many.
“They bought tickets up to the final,” he said.
 “They were confident that the team would reach that far even if that belief was misguided. And despite the team exiting, they are football fans first. They will stay all the way.”
 The story is not very different from Brazil.


Majestic St P’burg stadium
Tuesday was the first match I was watching at St Petersburg stadium and to say I was blown away by the structure would be putting it mildly. The Luhzniki stadium is imposing in size, the Spartak stadium unique for its aesthetic nature but St Petersburg is a bit of Luhzniki and Spartak. It is a wonder. The 67,000-seater illuminates gloriously at night and is located along the Krestovksy island facing the Gulf of Finland. It has a retractable roof and is home to Zenit St Petersburg.

It is coming home
Tuesday’s semi-final between France and Belgium was an anti-climax of sorts. Locals and neutrals had hoped that Brazil would somehow reach the last four and what a showdown that would have been for them. Instead Belgium threw a spanner in the works by stunning the five-time winners in the quarters. What that meant was that demand for the first semi-final diminished and all of a sudden, tickets became available. Even flight and train tickets which had been overly booked in the lead up to the semi-finals became available because many World Cup enthusiasts had hoped for a Brazil-France semi-final in a repeat of the 1998 final. It wasn’t to be.

Tickets available
I wrote this before yesterday’s semi-final between England and Croatia and have no idea what transpired in the second semi-final. You know England are around the corner when you hear a lot more English being spoken. As I arrived from St Petersburg yesterday morning, I had chants of ‘It is coming home, it is coming home…..’ as I arrived at Leningradsky Railway Station. It has become some sort of English anthem to momentarily replace ‘God Save The Queen.’ Only God knows what would happen if England won the World Cup. Being the home of football, wouldn’t you wish to see what would actually happen if an English captain ever held aloft the trophy?

Uganda’s location on map
In my Primary Three in Magwa Primary School, I could tell you all the capitals of the World. I was keen on the map of the world and could geographically locate each and every country. That was me. Most Russians are not as keen. But it is not only them, even a majority of Americans can’t locate Uganda on the map.  Many times on the Moscow (and St Petersburg) Metro line, I have been asked whether Uganda is in North, South, East or West Africa. They ask honestly, out of complete ignorance. I had my biases about Russia which I threw out the moment I set foot here and hopefully they will get a true image of Uganda, Africa.

*The writer is Monitor Publications Sports Editor

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